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A Midwestern Book Journey
Part 1

An Interview with Bonnie Blodgett

by Catherine Petruccione

#148 13 September 2010

On our way home, we also re-connected with Mark Jordan, playwright, poet, and now the Manager of the International Youth Hostel at Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio. You may remember Mark from my two-part article (Part 1 and Part II) on Louis Bromfield and Malabar Farm, which was published on BookThink in October 2006.

About a week into our travels we crossed from Wisconsin into Minnesota at Stillwater, Minnesota, a lovely historic town on the banks of the Mississippi River, close to the metro area of the Twin Cities. After we were settled in the cool old Water Street Inn, we telephoned William Souder, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author who lives in the Stillwater area and whom I interviewed for BookThink in March of this year (Part 1 and Part II) to discuss his book, Under a Wild Sky. He invited us to lunch at The Dock, a restaurant overlooking the river just a few blocks from where we were staying. We were lucky to catch up with him, as later this summer he is off to Southport Island, Maine, to stay at the property where Rachel Carson once lived and where he will be doing research for his upcoming biography on that iconic ecologist. Much to my delight, he brought with him a second talented author from the area, Bonnie Blodgett.

Bonnie brought me a copy of her new book, Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing - and Discovering - the Primal Sense (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2010). This book, which took nearly four years of research to write, was inspired by her own experience with anosmia (loss of the sense of smell), contracted after taking Zicam, an over-the-counter cold remedy that has since been removed from the market.

Bonnie is also a well-known garden writer, publishing The Garden Letter for the past 15 years, a Garden Writers Association award winner for excellence in its first year. Her garden writing has been published in Garden Design, Fine Gardening, and Better Homes and Gardens. She is also the gardening expert for Midwest Home and writes a weekly gardening column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Her books include Midwest Top Ten (Sunset Books), an illustrated guide to great plants and Jewel of Como, a history of a horticultural landmark. She has a fun and wonderfully helpful gardening gardening website and blog called "The Blundering Gardener."

Bonnie and I hit it off as soon as we discovered we both love the writing of Beverley Nichols and also that of Bill Bryson. It really flipped me out when she told me she "discovered" Bill Bryson! More about that in our interview below.

BOOKTHINK: Since returning home I've been visiting your website regularly for gardening tips. I'm crazy about your gardening website and blog. It's terrific. Tell me first about how you got started in gardening and garden writing.

BLODGETT: I started gardening when I was a parent for the first time and had these two little rug rats who needed a place to play. The house we bought had a yard that was a giant shady, muddy mess. I had no plan; I probably would have been happy if grass was growing, you know what I mean? But I had a neighbor who was a very creative guy and had Creeping Charlie growing all over and I thought that was just the prettiest thing! Thankfully he said, "Hmmm, no ..." and brought over some hostas for me. They looked about half alive, but I threw them in the ground and gave them up for dead. When I came back the next morning (you know what hostas do), they were perfect! A little water, a little soil, and they were perky, upright and still alive.

BOOKTHINK: That's better than my hosta story ... really not so happy an ending.

BLODGETT: You can't kill hostas, I don't think.


BLODGETT: Really? It would be tough. Here in Minnesota, this is hosta country. So that was it. I was hooked. I turned my back yard into this little wonderland and did the brick terrace and a water feature. It was supposed to be a play space for the kids, but not only did it turn into mainly bricks and plants, but also the water feature was a pond that they could have easily drowned in.

BOOKTHINK: It became your play space!

BLODGETT: Yes, and I was on my way. Beware kids, don't go near there. Then we sold the house and moved into one with a much bigger yard and a lot more sun. And I started writing about it because I loved the feeling of freedom that I had in the garden, and I was very frustrated in my work life. So I decided to put the two things together, the gardening and the publishing. Desktop publishing was making it easy to put out something of your own. I had a lot of friends from my magazine days who helped me with the design and gave me a document I could work with, and it has lasted 15 years. The first year it won a very big award, and that gave me a big boost. It was a Garden Writer's Award called "The Art of Garden Communications," which they sort of invented just for me - my newsletter didn't fit any of their categories. It was a very big deal then, I went out to Boston, and it was the last one they gave out. I was kind of overwhelmed because the big secret was, of course, that I didn't know beans about gardening. In those days, I just sort of walked around with my head down hoping nobody would ask me a question.

BOOKTHINK: Don't you think that's why the newsletter was successful? Because it was for the common person who was just getting started in gardening?

BLODGETT: Yes. And I admitted that I was a beginner. Mostly what it was about was all of my fumbling around. But it wasn't easy to pull that off ... you know garden people can be very persnickety.

BOOKTHINK: Well, yes, any group has their upper echelon (even antiquarian book sellers) that can be a little bit snooty.

BLODGETT: There really are sort of two worlds within horticulture that do intersect and get along, but they are two different personality types. There are what I call the plant collectors and plantsmen, people who just want to grow everything and make a real science of keeping plants alive, purists, with a real interest in why my plant grew bigger than your plant; and then there are the design people who don't really know plants in that way but like to throw a bunch of plants together to make a pretty setting. Sometimes those two worlds don't interact. It's really odd because they are just not interested in each other. I'm right in the middle. I'm getting more and more interested in the plants as I get to be a better gardener. That's probably a pretty common trajectory. I didn't really love plants back then - I didn't love them as amazing living creatures; I loved them as you would a nice looking slipcover! The plant and the pot - there wasn't a whole lot of difference. And I've definitely changed.

BOOKTHINK: Tell me about the videos you do for your website.

BLODGETT: I hesitated to ask if you had looked at them. I haven't been keeping up with the blog part of the website - I'm doing so much writing right now. It's hard to do it all. My heart is with the book, but I also love my gardening videos, mainly for what I see as their potential. This was last summer's fooling around, and the whole endeavor came to a screeching halt when my daughter went to work (she was the producer and director). This has been such a great summer for gardening. I've had a lot of tours in my garden - we've had so many projects. I think we are going to have to re-enact the summer of 2010. It's given me a chance to think about where we are going with this.

BOOKTHINK: I really like them because they are so fun and seem like really practical projects for real people - and cheap! Remember when This Old House first started, and it was meant for ordinary people? Now I just switch it off when I see it because it's about wealthy people who can hire anyone and buy anything to do a huge project.

BLODGETT: I agree. I want people to know the pleasure of solving problems in their gardens and homes. Instead of sitting around wringing your hands and going through the yellow pages and the internet for someone to call, just go the hardware store!

BOOKTHINK: Remembering Smell is inspired by your own experience with anosmia, or the loss of the sense of smell. When you lost your sense of smell, it was after you took an over-the-counter cold remedy, Zicam. And something strange began to happen when you were driving back from Madison, Wisconsin. There were persistent odd smells that you noticed.

BLODGETT: And I think the reason why I noticed it and knew there was something really wrong was because I was in the car. I couldn't blame it on anything else - it was so persistent. The smells weren't fading like they normally do. This smell was 24/7 and uniformly vile. I had no clue that I'd lost my sense of smell until after the ear-nose-throat doctor who diagnosed it told me that the phantom smells were olfactory hallucinations and he could give me a pill to get rid of them. I thought, "Oh Great, everything's going to be fine." Then he told me that I had lost my sense of smell, and I was shell-shocked.

BOOKTHINK: Did it take a long time to figure out what had caused it?

BLODGETT: No, the doctor knew right away. The word was out. This was in 2005, and in the ENT world, there was intense discussion among doctors about whether it was the Zicam or the cold that was causing this problem. But the concurrence of smell loss and use of Zicam was so prevalent that the only reason the product wasn't recalled until 2008 was because of politics. But there had been a 12.5 million dollar class action suit settlement, which amounted to about $200 per person if they promised never to tell anything bad to anyone about Zicam.

BOOKTHINK: But your sense of smell eventually returned, and that hasn't been true for everyone.

BLODGETT: After the recall, my lawyer called me and said, "Now that I understand just exactly what did happen to you, do you want to sue?" He had been telling me we should settle, and I didn't want to settle. But we both realized that it would be problematic because I had finally gotten my sense of smell back, and I didn't want to put myself through a lawsuit. I started writing the book pretty much after I was diagnosed. Like many writers, when you feel unhinged, you go right to the computer and start writing. But I found out very quickly that I wasn't going to be able to talk to anybody in any kind of meaningful way until I learned something about science. I had no biology in my background.

BOOKTHINK: But you found the resources you needed.

BLODGETT: It was hard at first because I went in the wrong direction. I went to the hardest sources first and struggled through books I could only understand about a tenth of, and then had to backtrack. It took 3 years.

BOOKTHINK: Well, who knew a book about the loss of smell could be so entertaining and interesting? I loved your writing style, and you brought up some interesting thoughts. One thing you mention in the book is that people today seem to have an aversion to smells of any kind - perfume, wood fire smoke, tobacco, which you mention in the book.

BLODGETT: I think one thing I learned from this project - and I learned an awful lot - is that smell is trained; it's learned. We tell ourselves what is good and what is bad, and that's called the hedonics of smell - the likes and the dislikes. We're not born with those. The suggestion of "scary, scary, scary" can take the enjoyment out of something. That aversion that some people have to cigarette smoke is quite real, and deeply psychological. Once it's implanted, it's pretty hard to change. Studies have been done that show that a lot of kids don't have that same sense of pleasurable reaction of burning leaves in the fall that we once had - they just aren't moved in anyway, except for thinking, "Is something on fire?"

BOOKTHINK: I grew up with horses, and the smell of the manure, the horse sweat, the hay in the barn - I just love those smells, and I can really see that the total loss of smell would have to be very isolating.

BLODGETT: It's so bad that if you do have something in your life that is redolent in an emotional kind of way - like horses - it's very distressing. I used to go to a ranch and ride every summer, and I knew that if I went riding again in that venue with the barn and the hay, it would just be heartbreaking, and I just didn't want to do it.

BOOKTHINK: Have you gotten much feedback on the book from readers?

BLODGETT: The reaction is interesting. I've been writing for Salon and Huffington Post, and I've gotten so many comments. What's been amazing to me is that literally a day doesn't go by, an hour doesn't go by, when someone tries to contact me who has anosmia, or has had it, or has a family member suffering from it. This is something people just don't talk about it because they don't know how to talk about it.

BOOKTHINK: Reading about your experience would certainly make people think twice about using any kind of drug because any confidence in health-related products we casually buy is just gone after something like this happens.

BLODGETT: It was interesting because in the on-line discussion after the Salon article appeared there was a lot of discussion about homeopathic and unregulated remedies; there are so many people who are really concerned about this. But then again there are so many who are devoted to the idea that we should be able to use any medicines we want, and that big Pharma is the worst offender. I recently got an e-mail from USA Today, and they told me about a report on a very important study of Zicam that kind of puts the lid on any more debate about A., whether it has any effectiveness against colds and B, whether it causes anosmia. The result of the study is A, NO, to the cold remedy and B, YES, to the anosmia. I have been waiting for this because there are still people out there who are using it, and they are still selling some version of it.

BOOKTHINK: I thought it was pulled from the market.

BLODGETT: One form of it was pulled, the form of it that is the most damaging. But even though it was recalled, the company has been trying to get it back on the market, and they are still selling these swabs that have zinc gluconate on them that are causing problems. I think Zicam is going to be pretty much all over as a product, but it is nice to have closure and a final last word. I'm going to talk to this reporter on Wednesday; she is going to do a big story on my book in the context of this finding.

BOOKTHINK: Bill Bryson endorses Remembering Smell on the dust jacket. Please share with me the story again about how you discovered the writing talents of Bill Bryson.

BLODGETT: I was working for a magazine with an international readership and could use any talent I wanted to - big budget and all that - so I very rarely went through the slush pile. One day, I just happened to see a query, this delightful little paragraph description, very professional, very concise, of an article this man wanted to write. I could tell instantly, as you can well imagine, that he was the real deal. At the time he was working as a copy editor on the business desk at the London Times. He was born and raised in Iowa but was a huge anglophile. But he was laboring in obscurity, to put it mildly. At the time he was contemplating a move to The Independent, which was just starting up. So that was really the central drama of his life; he was a newspaper man, as was his father, who was a pretty well known sports writer at the Des Moines Register. At that time he called himself Bill Bryson, Jr. because his father was the Bill Bryson. So I asked Bill to do the piece and that very quickly led to him appearing in the magazine pretty much every issue, which was unusual. He wrote about everything from the English landscape to museums, lots of quasi-travel writing, language. He wrote about everything with ease and wit and style.

BOOKTHINK: And this was an airline magazine, wasn't it?

BLODGETT: It was TWA Ambassador, and this was the 1980's.

BOOKTHINK: It would be fun to get some copies of those.

BLODGETT: I have them all up in the attic! It was a really beautiful magazine and won lots of awards, and we had big-name writers working for us. But Bill became the special favorite and he came and visited us. When the magazine folded, we decided to go into book packaging and brought a bunch of his ideas out to New York and then ended up instead selling a book that my partner and I wrote, sort of leaving Bill hanging. But he went on and sold his book ideas and made millions of dollars and lived happily ever after! I've kept in touch with Bill but not too much recently. I really had to sort of hunt him down, and when I found him, he was of course just the same amazingly generous person. He read the book and liked it and wrote me a very nice note for the jacket.

BOOKTHINK: This may sound silly, but one thing I want to say is that this book is really nicely made. It has a cloth binding, it is nicely bound. So many modern books are just cheap covers, bindings that crack as soon as you open them. I looked at this book when I first opened it and said, "WOW, Houghton Mifflin did a really nice job. I don't know if they do that for every author, but this is a really nice book!"

BLODGETT: I'll tell my editor you said that. A lot of people mention it. I love the typography, I think the paper is wonderful - I just love those little details. I was really happy they put an understated, more elegant looking jacket on the book. I was so relieved they didn't put a NOSE on it!

BOOKTHINK: Do you have any book store visits or signings coming up?

BLODGETT: I'm doing some radio, and this winter I'm hoping to have this event that I'm going to take to public gardens and conservatories called the "Tour de Scent." Public Gardens and Conservatories love having events to bring people to the venue in the winter especially. We unveiled this thing locally at a garden center here, and it was a blast! We had a smell contest with sort of a Jeopardy style format, prizes, great music and stinky cheeses, wines and a lot of smell talk - and then I read from the book. When we tried it out on people, it was just hilarious. They have blindfolds, and we're putting the stuff under their noses. It's pretty interesting too, to find out who knows smells. You know women are much better smellers than men are, and boy that was obvious!

BOOKTHINK: Do you have any new writing projects in mind?

BLODGETT: I'm sort of at a crossroads. I had not written a science book before, and there's a part of me that really enjoyed that, and I don't want to lose everything I've learned. But I love the garden writing. I don't know if you've ever read Eleanor Perenyi. Her book Green Thoughts is probably the most famous gardening book ever written by an American Gardener. That's a huge statement because there are a lot of books that are right up there. It's a real classic, written in the 1980's, and she's just recently died. Her book inspired me to do the garden letter, and I named my newsletter after it - "Green Thoughts for Northern Gardeners." She is not a humorous writer, or a story-teller, but she's very funny in a different sort of way. She's a real opinionated gardener. She was a magazine editor, so she's mainly a word person, and she gardened as a hobby. She was a very early organic gardener and had very strong views. She just kind of "got it" about plants and design and everything. She had an incredible gift.

BOOKTHINK: It can be so refreshing to read someone who's not afraid to be opinionated.

BLODGETT: Yes, and that's what makes her book so fun to read. She's definite about, "Do this, don't do that, if you do that, you're an idiot!" It's just delightful if you know anything about gardening. I read that book when I knew very little about gardening, but it's just captivating. I was thinking that it would be fun to do a collection of essays similar to her Green Thoughts, almost like a sequel, or in homage to her book. One of the things I loved about it was she organized it by alphabetizing her topics ... so she'd have Tomatoes in the "T"s, and that would be followed by an essay called "True Enough," which also began with "T." You really could not look at the table of contents and know for sure what the topic was going to be. But it was a great way to capture her gardening style, which was random but still structured. I've written so much about gardening that I would love to take all of it and put it into that kind of format and then write a really cool dedication to her and garden writing in general. That may be the next thing I work on.

BOOKTHINK: It sounds like a great project, and now I'm off to find a copy of Green Thoughts - I need all the help I can get. It has been so much fun talking with you, Bonnie. We wish you great success with your book, Remembering Smell, and continued success with your garden writing.

Stay tuned for part II of our Midwest Book Journey, when we catch up with author J.C. Hallman in St. Paul, Minnesota. In Part III we'll re-visit Mark Jordan at Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The interview with J.C. Hallman was published last month, out of sequence, to coordinate with the release of his latest book. Look for the Mark Jordan interview to follow the Bonnie Blodgett interview.

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